As the world grapples with the impact of growing distrust in key institutions, globalization and the rapid democratization of information, Canada may be feeling safe from the worst excesses of populism. However, the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer tells us we are not immune. Trust in business, government and media is at an all-time low.
Edelman's international study on public perception of institutions and their leaders tells an important story about the growing divide between the elites and the mass population.
The study compares the level of trust in key Canadian institutions among educated, upper-quartile income earners and the remainder of the population. The results confirm that the gap in trust in between the two groups is nearly twice what it was last year. It is, in fact, the biggest recorded gap noted between these two groups and is approaching the significant levels in countries such as the U.S., U.K. and France, where populist sentiment has seen political outcomes like the election of President Donald Trump and Brexit.
Our research tells us that a substantial number of Canadians are worried about a host of problems and assign both the blame and responsibility to fix them to government leaders. And yet 61 per cent of people do not have confidence that Canada's current leaders will be able to successfully address those challenges. Eighty per cent of people think the elites who run institutions are out of touch with regular people.
One in two agree that an influx of people from other countries is damaging Canada's economy and national culture. One in two Canadians also agree globalization is taking Canada in the wrong direction.
The takeaways for government and media are significant. One in three Canadians told us they would support politicians who can make their lives better even if they exaggerated the truth. Fifty-five per cent told us they don't listen to people or organizations they disagree with and that they are more than 3.5 times more likely to ignore information that supports a position they don't believe in. Canada is experiencing the echo chamber effect which is magnifying the crisis in trust. The job of regaining trust must begin, aggressively, now.
The data calls on business to lead but also to have a positive impact on our economic and democratic system. Four out of five people we surveyed agreed that business can take specific actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the communities where they operate.
We're seeing business activism play out in real time now south of the border as companies wade into the immigration ban controversy. Companies such as Starbucks are broadcasting their values and sending a message. As Edelman Global CEO Richard Edelman explained after the U.S. Election result last November, business must be in the dialogue, not bystanders.
Business must recognize that much of the audience rejects established authority. Despite the risks, business cannot afford to be complacent and should be looking for ways to diffuse the general sense of discontent Canadians are feeling. That means not only finding ways to effect positive change in society – be it environmental sustainability, reducing poverty, supporting infrastructure and social services or championing human rights – but to talk about doing so publicly and being open to participate in the conversation that creates.
It also means engaging with employees more consistently and transparently. It demands companies empower them to speak about the company's virtues and champion the brand, which means loosening the reins of power and control. In a world where trust in media is a significant problem, every company needs to be a media company. The responsibility to communicate trustworthy information has never been greater.
Canada needs to confront its challenges head on with an appreciation for the fundamental shift that has occurred in influence, from elites to populist power, with a focus on a new model where institutions work with the people to influence outcomes. The job of minding the gap, between success and growing discontent, is a job we all need to commit to with urgency.
Lisa Kimmel is president and CEO of Edelman Canada